On Saturday, a Phillies team with nothing to play for decimated a Braves team in pursuit of a Wild Card berth that, in this particular season, would be awarded to the contending team with the least dramatic collapse. Prior to the 7-0 rout in Turner Field, the Braves held a ceremony for Bobby Cox, who was set to manage the 4,507th of his 4,508 career regular season games.
In front of the podium sat dozens of former Braves who had played under Cox. Team president John Schuerholz spoke, as did Chipper Jones. A portrait of Cox was presented by Henry Aaron, whom Schuerholz referred to as "the real home run champion of baseball." Over 54,000 fans were present -- the largest regular-season crowd the Braves had attracted since moving to Atlanta 44 years ago. Cox expressed gratitude for their gratitude, and appreciation of their appreciation, but it’s difficult to say which he enjoyed less: the ceremony or the subsequent loss that threatened to crumble a season’s worth of inspired baseball.
Cox, like the majority of managers or coaches in sports, isn’t interested in being the center of attention. Above all else, the typical team leader abhors bullshit. That’s why he throws a fit after a blown call, or crankily dismisses a stupid question from a reporter, or chews out a player for making a lazy mistake. Having never spoken to Cox personally, perhaps I’m pegging him wrong, but in the minutes before what was arguably the most important Braves game of the past five seasons, I’m reasonably certain that there were dozens of things he would have rather been doing than sitting on a podium and receiving the keys to a Lexus.
Cox announced last year that the 2010 season, his 25th as manager, would be his last. On July 22, the Braves found themselves with a seven-game lead. A manager’s final season is rarely a feel-good story. Earlier in the season, Lou Piniella retired from baseball a little earlier than expected due to an illness in the family. Casey Stengel, who ended his career with the dreadful 1965 Mets, was forced into retirement after breaking his hip. Tommy Lasorda retired from the Dodgers mid-season after suffering a heart attack. Plenty of other great managers simply end their careers with disappointing seasons.
Following Saturday’s loss, there was a very real possibility that in his final season, Cox’s career would end with a late-season collapse that would come to an excruciating end on its final day. At once, such an end would have been completely inappropriate and entirely precedented.
I was seven.
Not only is Cox leaving on his own terms, he was hired on his own terms; in fact, he hired himself. Cox served as general manager of the Braves from 1986 to 1990. With the Braves well on their way to their seventh consecutive losing season, Cox elected to fire manager Ross Nixon and install himself as manager.
Cox himself was fired mid-season by the Braves in 1981, after which Joe Torre took the reins and immediately won the N.L. West.
Cox’s success was not quite so immediate, winning only 40 of the 97 games he managed. Tom Glavine and Steve Avery did not deliver on their potential. Dale Murphy, the face of the franchise, was declining (and shipped off to the Phillies mid-season). The Braves finished with a 65-97 record.
Teams finish with .400 records every year, but rarely is one man held so accountable for such a finish. Bobby Cox built most of this team. He fired the man he hired to manage, then fared little better himself. There was little reason for anyone to expect the success that awaited him.
I was eight.
Braves fans, even after all these years, are hyper-obnoxious braggarts (you are reading the words of one right now, as it happens), and the 1991 season figures heavily into their vicariously-gotten hubris. New general manager John Schuerholz, who had built the 1985 World Series champion Kansas City Royals, immediately set to work by acquiring some new bats, including Terry Pendleton and Otis Nixon.
On July 7, nearly halfway through the season, the Braves held a 39-40 record and stood 9.5 games behind the Dodgers in the N.L. West. Cox’s team then caught fire and won 55 of their remaining 83 games to surpass Los Angeles in the final weekend of the season.
The Braves defeated the Pirates in a seven-game NLCS that ended with a complete game shutout performance from John Smoltz, who was brought to the Braves by Cox, and who had managed to lower his ERA from 5.16 to 3.80 over the second half of the regular season. A World Series was finally coming to Atlanta. The city went mad.
The 1991 World Series was among the very most dramatic every played, featuring five games that were decided by a single run. Managerial decisions play an unusually large role in such games, and Cox’s decision-making was of sufficient quality to bring the Braves within a game of an overwhelmingly improbable World Series win.
In the eighth inning of this seventh game, Cox made the right call. The game was locked in a scoreless tie. Lonnie Smith, a veteran with some speed, was on first base with nobody out. Cox called a hit-and-run, which should have sent Smith home when Pendleton hit a double into the gap.
Instead, Smith was gamed by a rookie second baseman. Chuck Knoblauch acted as though he had the ball, and Smith was so badly fooled that he advanced to third only after Pendleton’s despaired yelling. After a groundout and a double play, the inning was over, and the game was still scoreless. The Twins finally broke through in the tenth inning, and so the Braves came as close to winning a championship as a team can get without actually winning it.
Smith had played in the majors for 14 years. He had won a World Series with three different teams. He was as qualified as anyone to execute his end of a hit-and-run in a Game 7 of a World Series. He didn't, though, and Bobby Cox was delivered the worst sort of heartbreak that baseball could throw at him.
It was his eleventh season as a major league manager. He went back to work.
I was ten.
If a player catches fire, his quality of play can be attributed to any number of variables. If an entire team catches fire, we look to the team’s leadership.
Two years removed from one of the least probable World Series appearances in baseball history, and one year removed from a second consecutive Series loss, Cox’s 1993 Braves ended up on the winning side of a playoff race so significant that non-Braves fans are especially sick of hearing about it.
With that in mind, I’ll keep it short: the Braves were ten games behind San Francisco on July 22nd, then went 49-16 down the stretch to beat the 103-win Giants on the final game of the season. Schuerholz’s off-season signing of Greg Maddux and the mid-season trade for Fred McGriff were required elements, and so was Cox’s leadership.
The partnership of Schuerholz, Cox, and pitching coach Leo Mazzone was ultimately responsible for the Braves’ successes. Without all three of them, the Atlanta dynasty probably does not happen, and the 1993 N.L. West championship certainly would not have happened.
When I was a kid, I liked Bobby Cox, but I wondered why managers were important at all. I reasoned that players were grown-ups, and grown-ups ought to be smart enough to manage themselves. Pete Rose was a player-manager. Why couldn't managerial duties fall to the smartest player? If I had taken a few months to think about it after the Braves clinched the N.L. West for the last time, I might have had my answer.
I was 12.
Braves fans were deflated by the 1993, NLCS loss to the Phillies, and further disappointed by the 1994 players’ strike. If Cox, in retrospect, were given the opportunity to choose when his one World Series championship would be won, he may well have chosen 1995.
And just as Cox was unusually responsible for the Braves’ losing 1990 team, he deserves an unusual level of credit for his World Series win. During his tenure as general manager, the Braves had drafted Ryan Klesko and Chipper Jones, and signed Javier Lopez. All three experienced breakout seasons in 1995.
Consider this: even with these three, who respectively had OPS+ numbers of 158, 108, and 117, the Braves’ offense was the weakest in the National League. If it were much weaker, not even a historically great starting rotation could have saved the team, and given the then-massive salaries that they were paying the likes of Maddux and David Justice, they likely could not have traded for another big bat.
As such, when the Braves defeated the Indians in six games to win the Series, Bobby Cox, the general manager, just might have deserved as much credit as Bobby Cox, the manager.
It was the only time in my life that my team, in any sport, won a championship. I watched it in the living room with my parents and my brother. For a time, I wished that had fallen in my adult life, both so that I could have celebrated in an adult fashion, like they do in the beer commercials, and so that I could have really appreciated how seldom these things happen.
Now, for some reason or another, I'm fine with it.
I was 22.
Ten years had passed since the Braves’ World Series win. Cox had seen Andruw Jones’ two home runs in his first two World Series at-bats, the brutal 1996 Series loss at the hands of the resurrected Yankee dynasty, the logic-defying strike zone that umpire Eric Gregg had given opposing pitcher Livan Hernandez in the 1997 NLCS, the overwhelmingly great 1998 Braves team that missed the playoffs, an escalated rivalry with the Mets, and the ascent/descent of John Rocker from a nameless Braves reliever to one of the most despised personalities in America.
Through all of this, Cox continued to lead the Braves to division titles. Entering the 2005 season, the Braves had reached every postseason since 1991 -- a streak unprecedented in professional North American sports. When the Braves’ streak began, I was eight. When I was 22, it was still going.
That was the problem. For many Braves fans, winning a division was simply something that happened. If we won 106 games, it happened. If we won 88 games, it happened. And if we lost an NLDS, it wasn’t distressing, because we knew the Braves would return the next year.
Was it possible for this perception to spill into the Braves’ clubhouse? Did it? I can’t say, or even venture to guess, because I simply have no idea. What we know, though, is this: after getting swept in the 1999 World Series, the Braves captured five division titles, but advanced to the second round of the playoffs only once.
When the guard inevitably changed, Cox was supplied with new talent. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles emerged from the farm system. Gary Sheffield and J.D. Drew were brought in as short-term solutions. Cox was winning division titles with good teams full of proven players.
In 2005, the team with 13 consecutive division titles was suddenly an underdog. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were long gone, Chipper Jones was hurting, and the bullpen was faltering. Bobby Cox was forced to plug the holes with rookies, giving 12 players their major league debuts in a single season. And thanks in part to a relatively weak N.L. East, the Braves took the title one last time.
Halfway through the season, it became clear that Dan Kolb could not close out games, so the team acquired Kyle Farnsworth. He was immediately effective, recording a 1.98 ERA and 10 saves in 27.1 innings, and was the subject of what may be Cox’s worst-ever decision as a manager.
In Game 4 of the NLDS, down two games to one to the Astros, the Braves carried a 6-1 lead into the eighth inning. Cox sent in Farnsworth to relieve Tim Hudson, and after inheriting two runners, Farnsworth surrendered a walk before giving up a grand slam to Lance Berkman.
The Braves then took a 6-5 lead into the ninth. Kyle Farnsworth had thrown 25 pitches in the previous inning. Bobby Cox sent him back to pitch the ninth, and it wasn’t terribly surprising when Farnsworth surrendered the game-tying home run to Brad Ausmus. I’m tempted to explain what happened with, "well yeah, it was Farnsworth," but from any perspective, sending Farnsworth back to the mound was a bad idea.
The game went to extra innings, and the Braves lost what would ultimately become, at five hours and fifty minutes, the longest game in postseason history. The division title streak was effectively over, as the Braves finished third the following year, so we can at least say that Bobby Cox squeezed every last hour out of it.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I managed to coax a dozen of my friends, most of whom didn't like baseball, to watch the game with me. By the seventh inning, half of them left to go to a party. When the game entered its 12th inning, a few more left. When Roger Clemens made a pinch-hit appearance, only one of my friends were there to see it. By the 16th inning, it was about 5:00 p.m., and he had fallen asleep on the couch. When Chris Burke hit his walk-off home run in the 18th, there were no witnesses I could call on, but I didn't need them. All teams, I figured, would fall apart someday.
I was 27.
After having been shut out on Saturday, the Braves returned to Turner Field on Sunday to play their 162nd game of the season. They had fallen into a tie for the Wild Card with the Padres, a team whose fall from the division lead was even more profound than the Braves’.
The Phillies, in addition to beating the Braves 7-0 on Saturday, had clobbered them 11-5 on Friday, and had also swept them in the previous series. The Phillies jumped to an early 2-0 lead. Chip Caray noted that their winning percentage was over .800 when they acquired such a lead.
And then the Braves began to hit. Jason Heyward, the 21-year-old rookie who has helped to carry the lineup, tripled to score Rick Ankiel. The Braves returned for four more runs in the fourth, two more in the fifth, and one more in the sixth to build an 8-2 lead.
The Phillies rallied to score five runs. This did not surprise me; in fact, given the Braves’ play over the last month, I was mildly surprised that the Braves were able to slam the door. It doesn’t matter. They’re in the playoffs.
This year is so strange. There were three stages to Bobby Cox’s second tenure with the Braves. In the first stage, his Braves were a team full of young phenoms who surprised baseball time and again. In the second, they were an established power, seemingly (I stress, seemingly) complacent with maintaining their regular-season dominance and coming back for a World Series the following year. In the third, most of the team’s identity had disappeared, and the team was, for the first time since the early 1980s, a normal team -- one that offered reasons for both optimism and pessimism, and was neither spectacular nor awful.
This is a foreign team. It’s like the third stage, only with an inseparable narrative of Destiny and a Storybook Conclusion that changes it entirely. It’s nothing like the first two stages, both of which were specific to the players. There were Ron Gant, David Justice, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Then there were Glavine, Smoltz, Chipper Jones, and Greg Maddux. Now, even Chipper Jones is absent, and almost nobody who will play in the 2010 NLDS is associated with any part of the 14-year dynasty.
There’s just Bobby Cox, by himself, somehow still there in the dugout, just as he was before I was born. He’s going to pencil in Tommy Hanson for the start, just as he did with Greg Maddux and Phil Niekro, and then, in a week or a month, it will be over. We don’t know whether the likes of Heyward, Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and/or Julio Teheran will write a story worth telling.
A worthwhile narrative is a privilege to read. Bobby Cox has written the Braves’ narrative, game by game, for longer than seems possible. He is still writing it. The odds are stacked against his team's favor, so I refuse to set expectations, but I know that whenever it ends, be it a week or a month from now, I'll want to read another page, and it won't be there.
I'll be 28.
"From Hank to Hendrix," Neil Young